Murie, Olaus J. (1959) FAUNA OF THE ALEUTIAN ISLANDS AND ALASKA PENINSULA, 1936-38, U.S. Dept. Interior, Fish & Wildlife Service, Washington.
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Ursus arctos: Brown Bear Ursus arctos gyas (Alaska Peninsula subspecies)
Aleut, Alaska Peninsula: Tunarokh and Chuchiuk (Wetmore)
Tanghakh or Tanghaghikh (Geoghegan)


There are some interesting data on a male bear, Ursus gyas, that lived for many years in the National Zoological Park in WashingtonThe great size of the Alaska brown bear has caught the imagination of the public, and it is a favorite trophy for the sportsman, as well as for the camera enthusiast. The estimates of weight of this animal probably are not greatly exaggerated.

Necessarily, most of the information on weight is based on estimates, but some authentic figures have been reported.

Loring (1907) gives the weight of one bear as 1,010 pounds. , D. C. The bear died September 30, 1914, and was measured by Vernon Bailey. A record of weights, kept since its capture at Cape Douglas, Alaska Peninsula, on May 24, 1901, were published by Townsend Whelen (1946) as follows:

Date              Pounds
May 24, 1901 18
January 9, 1902 180
June 15, 1903 450
January 18, 1904 625
January 28, 1905 770
February 26, 1906 890
March 11, 1907 970
March 21, 1908 1,050
January 20, 1911 1,160
September 30, 1914 1,020

Measurements of this bear, taken by Vernon Bailey at time of death, were as follows: Total length, 2,590 mm.; tail vertebrae, 120 mm. ; length of hind foot, 350 mm. (claws were worn short) ; height at shoulder, 1,380 mm. ; girth back of shoulders, 1,760 mm. ; girth at belly, 2,305 mm.

The bear had attained an age of about 13 1/2 years; cause of death was attributed to rupture of the abdominal aorta. At time of death, it was described by Bailey as being "in fine muscular condition, but not fat."

Allen (1904) reports the measurements of a specimen taken at Port Moller as follows: Total length, 2,057 mm.; tail vertebrae, 127 mm. ; hind foot, 349 mm. ; shoulder height, 1,068 mm. ; weight, approximately 1,600 pounds. The weight was estimated.

Anderson (1909) obtained a bear, June 1, 1909, on Unimak Island, that weighed 1,325 pounds — the skin weighed 135 pounds. Anderson gives the height at shoulder as 48 inches ; height at hip, 3 feet 10 inches; girth back of shoulders, 10 feet; and width between ears, 14 inches.

McCracken (1920) obtained a bear at Frosty Peak, whose weight was estimated to be between 1,600 and 1,800 pounds. The tanned skin was 11 feet 4 inches long, and "the skull was 18 1/4 in. long one-half inch under the world's record according to Washington, D. C. authorities."

Beasley (1910) shot a bear at Port Moller that weighed 1,200 pounds.

I obtained a large male bear north of Pavlof Volcano, May 30, 1925. Total length was 2,100 mm. The skin, when laid out loosely, measured 11 feet. It made a heavy pack load, weighing well over 100 pounds. The bear was estimated to weigh roughly about 1,000 pounds. This probably was a conservative estimate because he was extremely fat. The fat on the rump was so thick that the tail bone was completely buried in the layer, and the tail itself was not visible. There were large bare places on both elbows, which were calloused as a result of the bear lying about on the rocks.

Brown bears have been abundant on Alaska Peninsula. Mc- Cracken (1924) says —

On my sojourn in the section around the western end of the Alaska Peninsula, which was in 1922 between the breakup of spring until August, I saw 190 brown bears. The fact that we saw 28 bears in a single day, and as high as 12 in sight at the same time, is in itself good evidence of the numbers to be found.

In primitive times, brown bears are said to have been gregarious and very plentiful. Even today, on Unimak Island, where the primitive state has been preserved, groups of at least seven or eight bears have been noted.

In areas that are extensively hunted, the large, old, male bears tend to become scarce, though there may be many females, younger animals and cubs.

The dates of hibernation are not definitely known, and no doubt there is much variation among individuals. Many bears probably come out of hibernation some time in April. Beals and Longworth (field report) saw their first bear on April 15, 1941 ; after this date, sightings became common. In 1925, I saw the first bear on May 5, ambling about the lower edge of the lava beds at Urilia Bay. The bear country on the mainland was not investigated until May 24. At that time, it was evident that the bears had been out of hibernation for quite a while. The bears that we observed at this time were very sluggish, still fat, and apparently did not require large quantities of food. A local guide said that he once found a bear sleeping on a snow patch, and the trail leading to the bear had thawed away. The guide believed that bears sometimes remain several days in one spot.

In early spring, the bears remain high in the mountains, in the upper valleys, among the rocky ledges and high snowfields, as well as in the lava beds. During May and early June, there is still much snow in the mountains, especially in scattered deep drifts, and the weather is often cold and stormy. But the bears are immune to such weather and generally are seen resting on exposed rocky ledges or snow banks. This is their habitat until at least the middle of June, though a few may appear in the lowlands much earlier. Bear trails were found on the slopes of Pavlof Volcano and on many of the high ridges, as well as on the glacier in the shadow of Aghileen Pinnacles.

For the most part, the spring diet consists of grass and roots, varied occasionally by a ground squirrel. The stomach of a male killed on May 24 contained a ground squirrel, various roots, and a mass of Equisetum (horsetail). A large male killed on May 30 had only a handful of roots in the stomach. The stomach of a female killed on June 3 was empty, but the intestines contained a considerable amount of grass. At this time of year, there is little else for the bears to eat, unless they occasionally find some carrion.

When the salmon ascend the streams in June, the bears seem to subsist largely on salmon. However, they do not entirely forsake the highlands. Long trails leading back to the highlands show the routes of travel down to the salmon streams, though the bears often sleep near the streams, in the alder thickets. The bears scoop out beds along the banks, and sometimes pile up moss and other vegetation to form a mattress. We found one such structure at Izembek Bay, and, in 1911, Wetmore described a similar heap found at Morzhovoi Bay, at a salmon pool: "On the bank above this was a curious bed of moss and grass dug up from the ground around piled up a foot deep and twelve feet square. Below it were smaller ones freshly made about two feet square and all padded down as though bruin had been sitting on them."

I have observed a bear capturing salmon only once. It took place in July 1925, when I was photographing a bear that was attempting to dig out a ground squirrel. The bear seemed to be lazy, and after a short time he stopped digging and ambled over to a shallow stream near my place of concealment. He splashed noisily through the stream and ran through some shallow riffles where he seized two or three of the swarming salmon with his teeth.

In some streams there were deep pools that showed claw marks on the bottoms and sides far underwater. Evidently, these marks were made by bears that were fishing, but the method of capturing salmon in such places was not observed.

In autumn, when berries ripen, a new food supply becomes available. On Unimak Island, the bears then seek the salmonberry thickets and feed on the ripe fruit. Many other berries are eaten also. Osgood (1904) mentions crowberry (Empetrum nigrum), which are eaten in "great quantities," and various species of Vaccinium. There were indications that roots and grass are eaten in the fall, and it was reported that bears occasionally are seen on the beach, where they probably would eat anything edible that had washed ashore.

Bears are always on the lookout for carrion. Some caribou carcasses appeared to have been eaten by bears, but there was no indication that the brown bear will kill caribou under normal circumstances.

A striking feature of the brown-bear country is the characteristic bear trail. In marshy ground, the bear trail forms a well-marked path, in which a man can sink to the ankles. But on firm ground, on the higher mossy tundra, the trail consists of two well-defined ruts with a high center. In one instance, where the trail led over a slight embankment, the ruts had been worn so deeply that the bear's chest had rubbed on the high hump between the ruts. The bear had literally "high-centered."

One often finds a trail in which individual footprints are preserved. Each bear has carefully stepped in the tracks of his predecessors until the well-worn trail becomes a zig-zag series of holes. It was only with great effort that I could step far enough to walk in these tracks. This type of trail was usually found in the vicinity of a large boulder, where a bear was accustomed to lurk, or where the trail led to a den or some other local point of interest. T he trails with uniform ruts generally extended for long distances.

Occasionally, an abandoned trail is evidenced by clumps of grass that have found a foothold in the disturbed ground in each footstep. Griggs (1922) mentions an interesting bear trail in the volcanic ash of Katmai, in which drifting grass seeds had lodged and taken root in the individual footprints.

Much has been written about the ferocity of the Alaska brown bear. The great strength of the bear cannot be doubted, but danger from this bear is dependent upon its disposition at a given moment. There have been some disastrous encounters with this huge beast, but a detailed analysis of such cases will not be attempted here. However, during my experience on Alaska Peninsula there was not a single instance when the bear did not try to get away, even when wounded. One bear that was photographed at close range, a matter of some 30 or 40 feet, started for the photographer at the sound of the shutter, and I must admit considerable nervousness at the time, but it was obvious that he was advancing out of curiosity. The bear fled when we shouted and brandished a rifle vigorously. On the same day, an- other bear, coming slowly along a trail straight for the camera, heard the camera at close range and stopped. This bear was more suspicious and walked off reluctantly, obviously puzzled. In neither case did I wish to shoot, unless it was unavoidable. Indeed, except for a head shot, it might have been dangerous to shoot at such close range.

Apparently, some residents of Unimak Island had little fear of the brown bear. Arthur Neumann related that on one occasion he had forced a group of bears into the rough water of Swanson Lagoon on a stormy day to watch them struggle in the choppy waves.

The Alaska brown bear deserves respect and should be approached carefully, because it can cause considerable damage for a few moments even after being shot through the heart. It is best to realize that although this bear is not particularly vicious, it is very curious and is likely to investigate anything unusual. The bear's eyesight is not good, which may account for its close approach at times.

An interesting incident occurred on the slope of Pavlof Mountain. A companion and I sighted several bears high on a slope. At the first shot, the largest bear rolled downhill, obviously shot in the head (incidently, this was a regrettable shot because the bear was wanted for a specimen). Three other bears followed the rolling carcass, pell-mell, and it was apparent that they were yearling cubs that were instinctively following the mother. The mother rolled by very near us, and dropped off a small cliff at that point. The three young bears followed headlong, and we could hear them grunting, but at the very brink of the little cliff they suddenly braced themselves and stopped. After a detour, they approached the dead bear farther down the slope, but suddenly they became frightened and fled. Either the death of the mother, or our scent, had frightened them. Upon examination, it was discovered that there was a small amount of milk in the udders of the mother. Next day, the cubs were seen again on the same mountain slopes; they were wary and seemed able to shift for themselves.

It has been said that the female brown bear has cubs only every other year, or only over an interval of three years. This may be true, for the female mentioned above had no young cubs that year, and there may be some irregularity and individual variation in the breeding cycle. The young number from two to four; two are the usual number.

According to some reports from the western end of Alaska Peninsula, brown bears may go into hibernation in December, as late as Christmas. Osgood (1904), speaking of the base of the peninsula, on the authority of natives there, said that they go into hibernation early in November, and even in October, but he adds that the time of hibernation may vary with the severity of the weather. They occasionally may emerge during the winter.

Brown bears find dens in the lava rocks. I was told of several such caves at the north base of Shishaldin Volcano on Unimak Island. They are said to extend for a disance of as much as 100 feet. In 1925, I explored such a cave in a lava bed near Shishaldin. It formed an underground tunnel some 30 or 40 feet long and proved to be unoccupied at the time, though there were huge footprints on the floor.